A platform on deplatforming: Jeff McMahan (C’76) discusses academic freedom

By Richard Pryor III
Executive Staff

The Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), founded in 2018, is different from other academic journals in one way – if they so wish, authors can publish their articles using pseudonyms. One of its three founders, Jeff McMahan (C’76), a Sewanee alumnus currently serving as White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, discussed the JCI and other issues of academic freedom in a lecture at the Sewanee Inn on March 29.

McMahan started his lecture with a comprehensive overview of the history of academic freedom issues in the 20th century, beginning with the bioethicist Dr. Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton and one of the co-founders of the JCI alongside McMahan. Singer, who has argued in favor of infanticide in certain cases, noting that newborns lack “essential characteristics of personhood,” was “silenced” in Germany, according to McMahan, and received death threats in the late 1990s upon being appointed to an endowed chair at Princeton. Their third co-founder, Francesca Minerva of the University of Ghent, received similar threats for similar ideas.

McMahan offered his observation that most of the challenges to academic freedom were coming from within the universities themselves, as well as from the far left of the political spectrum, a group of which he identifies himself as a member. He also pointed out that most of the challenges were taking place in the form of “deplatforming,” where people opposed to a speaker and their views seek to prevent that person from being able to contribute, whether in a debate or in a speech.

One example of this that McMahan offered was a personal one, where he was protested against at one of his lectures in Beirut, by students and activists affiliated with Hezbollah, a militant Islamist political party that is notoriously anti-Israel, for his association with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Regardless of their views,” McMahan stated, “no platforming is a wrong against that person,” and he offered many reasons why, primarily the fact that it squanders any chance of discussion between the groups of people or a chance to reply.

During the question and answer session, philosophy professor Jim Peters questioned McMahan about the causes, in his opinion, of the issues with academic freedom. McMahan noted that there were many causes, but the biggest one was social media, because it promoted an “us vs. them mentality.”  

“Why not discuss?” McMahan asked. “Are your views shallow?” Even when people’s views do not change, McMahon promotes discussion as a means of “deepened mutual understanding.”